For so long the golf courses of Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula have existed in the shadow cast by the amazing layouts of the Mornington Peninsula, which is just a 40-minute ferry ride across Port Phillip Bay.
Chatting to some local Bellarine golfers you will hear them sometimes refer to the Mornington as “the other side” in a geographical reference, but also one with a tone of rivalry.
The Bellarine has closed the gap on its bayside neighbour with four courses entrenched in Golf Australia magazine’s Top-100 Courses ranking, and a fifth likely to join them when the next list is published in January 2022. There are also acclaimed public access layouts and nine-hole courses in the region to help scratch your golfing itch when holidaying in the region.
For mine, the ease of accessibility for visiting golfers and value for money of a round are the Bellarine’s greatest assets.
Adding to the growing hype about the Bellarine is the addition of the Lonsdale Links course.
Lonsdale Golf Club dates back a century but the course that now lies across fantastic golfing terrain at Point Lonsdale is the newest on the Peninsula, having reopened last December – following an extensive rebuild by the design team of Ogilvy, Cocking & Mead (OCM – Geoff Ogilvy, Mike Cocking and Ashley Mead).
The club’s previous incarnation was a good course but the rough diamond that it was, has been polished, buffed and polished again to produce a layout that is destined to propel the club into the Top-100 Courses ranking at the start of 2022.
The OCM design ebbs and flows across gently undulating coastal dunes, while holes on the lower reaches sit alongside salt marshes and wetlands near Lake Victoria. It is a short par-70 of just 5,505-metres from the tips but the links aspects of the course will test better players, while allowing the rest of us to simply have fun. If having fun was the sole underlying purpose behind Lonsdale’s new design, then OCM has hit the nail on the head, especially those holes that have been inspired by some of the world’s best holes.
OCM didn’t create perfect copies of famous holes but were ultimately dictated to by the Lonsdale terrain when inspired to use an element of Macdonald’s templates.
In the early 1900s, famed course architects CB Macdonald and Seth Raynor created a series of template designs, based on the strategies of the world’s best holes. OCM has used elements of those templates and the holes that inspired them at Lonsdale Links.
Half of the holes at Lonsdale have a template connection to holes found on the National Golf Links of America, North Berwick and The Old Course at St Andrews.
Perhaps the most spectacular of these is the 165-metre par-3 12th and its dramatic putting surface, which gives rise to the hole’s name, ‘Thumbprint’. Inspired by the 16th at Sleepy Hollow Country Club in the US, Thumbprint looks like a giant thumb has pressed down the middle of the putting surface, leaving a series of different tiers and ridges across the green.
Elsewhere, the 115-metre par-3 14th is a shorter reverse version of the original ‘Redan’ hole – the 15th at North Berwick in Scotland – while the famed ‘Road Hole’ at St Andrews has inspired the green complex of Lonsdale’s short par-4 16th, where the green is protected by a deep pot bunker and an out-of-bounds fence.
“We really wanted to do something a little bit different down here, mainly because of the surrounding competition, with Thirteenth Beach and Barwon Heads, as well as Curlewis not too far away,” Mead told Golf Australia magazine earlier this year.
“The more we thought about it, and the more we cleared the non-native trees off the property to reveal the dune land, the more we thought the site resembled that of the National Golf Links of America, which we studied in 2012. It has some low salty wetland areas, views across the lake and rolling dunes, so it gave us some inspiration and that sort of evolved into creating a similar style course to what the architects Macdonald and Raynor had created in the early 1900s.”
OCM didn’t create perfect copies of famous holes but were ultimately dictated to by the Lonsdale terrain when inspired to use an element of Macdonald’s templates. Mixed in between these ‘templates’ are further fun and challenging holes, that might become the inspiration of course designers in the future.
“It was certainly our intention to create a more strategic course than what was once here. Our ideal is for a course to not reveal itself on day one. The more you play it, the more you should understand it and work out where the pins are and where you want to access them from, it’s all about plotting you way around,” Mead added.
It is a similar design strategy extensively found at each of the four other Bellarine courses already well established among the finest courses in Australia.
Barwon Heads is referred to as a “golf village by the sea”, and it is an apt moniker as the Bellarine’s three highest-ranked golf courses can be found here.
The Barwon Heads Golf Club has long been a favourite destination for Melbourne golfers and interstate visitors. The opportunity to stay on-site and tour the old-fashioned but thoroughly challenging 18-hole course and nine-hole par-3 layout lures golfers at all times of year.
Access to the famed links is easier than many are aware of (tee times for visitors are available five days a week), meaning this elements-hardened layout – ranked No.20 in Golf Australia’s Top-100 Courses ranking in 2020 – should be the cornerstone of every Bellarine golf itinerary.
“Barwon Heads presents itself in three distinct acts with great tumbling dunes on the smaller paddock then the wild holes around the turn that open out into some beautiful wide spaces on the back nine ... Barwon Heads is the sort of course that compels you to gaze dreamily in the window of the real estate agents on your way out of town,” said Golf Australia Top-100 Courses ranking judge, Adrian Logue.
Victor East, the professional at Royal Melbourne GC, designed the course in 1920 and much of the framework of his work remains, although there have been tweaks of the design, especially in recent years. Neil Crafter and Paul Mogford from Golf Strategies Course Design were commissioned by the club in 2004 to improve the course by remodeling bunkering, lengthening several holes and to remove selected areas of Ti-tree to enhance playing lines. This work is ongoing.
The course boasts all the attractive qualities of a links with firm, fast-running fairways, an undulating terrain as well as mounding and bunkering that seemingly blend naturally into the surrounding landscape. Throw in some ever-present wind of varying strengths and the links at Barwon Heads grows in stature despite its apparent lack of length from the tips.
The overwhelming highlight of any round at Barwon Heads is the experience of playing the opening six holes. Laid out across a dunescape just a short iron from the ocean, the first six holes are raw, links golf holes that could have been plucked from the east coast of Scotland.
The best of these is the 390-metre par-4 3rd, which gradually doglegs right around a natural sandy wasteland before rising to the green. Into the prevailing wind, the tee shot over the wasteland is daunting, while the uphill approach needs to be kept low beneath the height of the sand dunes to the left.
Just around the corner, Thirteenth Beach Golf Links gives golfers two Top-100 Course ranked options – the acclaimed Beach course (No. 24) and the ever-improving Creek layout (No.50). Both the Beach and Creek Courses are used for the VicOpen, which calls Thirteenth Beach home.
The Tony Cashmore-created Beach course at Thirteenth Beach brought world class golf to the region and rather than complementing it’s classically designed neighbour, Barwon Heads, it has become the top-ranked layout on the peninsula and regularly features among the best 20 courses in the country.
Thirteenth Beach was the vision of entrepreneur Duncan Andrews, who fell in love with the coastal strip of sand dunes at first glance. Having already developed The Dunes Links on the Mornington Peninsula, Andrews commissioned the design genius behind that layout – Tony Cashmore – to craft a course that would incorporate as much of the rugged dune landscape as possible.
While the opening four holes cover relatively flat land, the excitement builds on the 5th tee as the layout begins its journey across some of the best natural terrain for golf in Victoria. Cashmore, following a minimalist philosophy in creating the Beach course, located some fabulous tee and green sites among the dunes, which have, in turn, produced some memorable holes. The trio of holes, starting from the par-4 5th, is the highlight of the front nine while the back nine includes two world class par-3s in the 12th and 16th holes.
The adjoining Creek course, which was born three years after the Beach in 2004 and initially lacked the grandeur of its big sister. Yet members and visitors alike are discovering the Creek Course is a considerable, if slightly different, test.
The Tony Cashmore/Sir Nick Faldo design is more open and expansive, which complements the tighter Beach course perfectly. Strategic decisions and shot selections are everywhere. At the 431-metre 5th hole, second shots come in from long range and can either fly a bunker set short and right of the saucer-style green or be bounced in from the left side and placed in the lap of the vagaries of the landform. The par-4 8th and 9th holes can be played aggressively from the tee – bringing water and bunkers into play, respectively, or conservatively to avoid the trouble. On the inward half, sentinel trees at the par-4 13th and 14th require more grey matter contemplation to avoid connecting with the timber. And the Creek course these days is stronger for its redesigned par-3 12th, which now measures a shorter 145 metres from the back tees with a pond left of the undulating green.
The latest addition to Thirteenth Beach is a very good nine-hole par-3 Short Course, which is ideal for families, beginners or better players looking to sharpen their iron play. For all and sundry the course offers a wide range of fun shots into some wild and intriguing green complexes.
It is an easy 20-minute drive, north of the oceanside Thirteenth Beach, across the Peninsula to the region’s fourth Top-100 Course – Curlewis Golf Club.
Curlewis (pictured right) is one of the most improved courses in Australia during the past decade.
Back in 1947, Vern Morcom – the long-time Kingston Heath course superintendent and acclaimed designer – was commissioned by the then East Geelong Golf Club to create an 18-hole layout on the club’s current site. He crafted an open layout with wide fairways, big undulating greens to take into account the wind that is such a strong influence on the courses of the Bellarine.
But the decades that followed were difficult without a reliable water supply and the course, despite its superb design, was never able to reach its full potential. That is until it was purchased in July 2015 by local winery owners, Lyndsay and David Sharp, who injected $1 million into upgrading the layout. This included retaining the design services of Mike Clayton, who had been consulting to the club for many years.
His advice over the years has been minimalist rather than massive overhaul.
The result has seen Curlewis climb in every national ranking published in recent years. In January 2020, Curlewis was ranked at No.54 in Golf Australia magazine’s Top-100 Courses. Eight years earlier it did not receive a single vote from our panel of judges, such has been the steady and sustained climb of the course.
The forced closure of the course during the height of the pandemic in 2020 saw the club take advantage of the opportunity to undertake further improvements.
“Ironically, there was a silver lining during the period of closure,” Curlewis General Manager, Jamie Brigden, said. “We were able to activate extensive course innovations and improvements – some were on the ‘wish list’ whilst others were those that had been put on the back burner.
“A particular favourite for the Curlewis team has been the installation of ‘The Serpent’, a water feature (commonly known as a ‘burn’) which meanders across the par-5 6th hole.”
The Serpent has added a strategic element to the three-shotter, not only asking questions of your tee shot but also how you plan to play your second shot.
Many of the tees have been reworked, while more than nine bunkers have also been modified.
“The back nine is now complete and we are now forging ahead on the front nine,” Brigden said. “Fairways have been widened on eight holes and, in several locations the rough has been removed or reduced. This inherently forces the golfer into a mindset of more strategic thinking when tackling the course.”
The most recent changes have also seen the not-so-interesting par-5 1st hole shortened and converted into a strategic par-4 where position off the tee is far more important than it ever was when played as a par-5. The 9th hole has also been overhauled from a dogleg left par-4 to a slight dogleg left with a right turn at the end, creating a strategic line of play alongside the left side fairway bunker. It’s only a short two-shotter but the position off the tee, again, is crucial for good scoring.
Heading east along the northern bayside coast of the Peninsula, there are two more high quality courses to be found within a short drive of Curlewis.
Clifton Springs Golf Club boasts some beautiful water views north, particularly over the closing holes of a round. From the tees of the par-5 16th and par-4 18th it’s possible to see the bluffs along Corio Bay and even to Melbourne on a clear day.
Another highlight of a round here is the lofty standard of the couch fairways and bentgrass greens.
Further along the coast is Portarlington Golf Club – one of the oldest clubs on the Bellarine Peninsula, having celebrated its centenary in 2009.
During the past century the club moved to several sites around the town – before settling on its current location in 1937 – and has evolved from a nine-hole oil and bluestone scrape course to one of the golfing joys of the region and narrowly missing a place in Australia’s Top-100 Public Access Courses ranking published in January this year.
The club decided to expand to 18 holes in the early ‘60s and approached the former curator at Lonsdale Golf Club, Eric Horne, to design the layout. He did the work for free and the full 18-hole layout was opened for play in 1963. He returned nearly a decade later to revise the layout when additional land became available. Further redesign was made again in the early ‘80s.
But the most significant changes to the layout came after the appointment in 1996 of the renowned Tony Cashmore as the club’s consulting course architect. In the years that followed, his vision for Portarlington was gradually rolled out. This included the upgrading of all fairways to Santa Ana couch grass, the rebuilding of several greens as well as the reshaping of fairways and bunkers. Several new tee positions were created while a program of tree removal was put in place.
This is a little slice of the Melbourne Sandbelt on the Bellarine. Several bunkers would look right at home at Kingston Heath, while the small greens and occasional stands of imposing pine trees are reminiscent of some of the top Melbourne courses.
The design is solid but the condition of the couch fairways is the gamebreaker. Portarlington’s fairways would be the envy of many private city courses boasting bigger budgets and maintenance staff.
The run home from the Sandbelt-esque, short par-4 12th hole is strong. The 13th is a 241-metre par-4 that is so tempting it almost forces you into hitting driver from the tee, with the two strongest par-4s on the course following it. Then there is the water carry on the par-3 17th, before heading to the 18th – a deceptive 318-metre downhiller where the playing line narrows the closer you get to the green, and the small pond fronting it.